Making £50 a week taste better

Alex goes supermarket shopping on £50 a week

After I tried to feed my family on Sainsbury’s menu, I appealed to Times readers for better ideas

7th July 2011

The Times

Two months ago, Sainsbury’s launched a “value” marketing drive, with TV and press campaigns, promising to feed recession-hit families for just £50 a week. The first menu was depressing with its pseudo-bargains, unlikely extravagances (a £5 bunch of grapes) and lots of tinned and frozen food. These included some sausages at 10p each: beige and tasteless, just 45 per cent pork, they were the most revolting things that have ever been in my frying pan.

All this was mocked on these pages and elsewhere, especially when the company was pushed to admit that in nutritional terms the menu would in fact provide only 85 per cent of what a family would need. Unsurprisingly, the promotion has now disappeared from Sainsbury’s stores and website.

“Marketing froth” was one trade analyst’s verdict: that rang true in this house. When I tried to send my kids off to school on the budget breakfast of toast and jam, they were as appalled as if I’d attempted to ban the TV. What is wrong with porridge, many of you asked.

Read the rest here via Times Online

British farmers and the supermarket price wars

British farmers forced to pay the cost of the supermarket price wars

The Guardian, Saturday 2nd July2011.

As profits soar at the supermarkets, food producers say they are being forced out of business by unfair buying practices.

You can pick up a punnet of British raspberries – at their best this weekend – on a two-for-one offer in most supermarkets. But as shoppers reach for that quintessential summer treat, they should perhaps ponder the fact that it is the farmer, not the supermarket, who is paying for the generous discount.

The farmer may well be making no profit at all, with no choice in the pricing and little or no idea, when he picked and shipped the raspberries, how much he would get for them. Or that the packaging would be paid for by the farm, but done by a company chosen by the supermarket – at up to twice the cost of it being packaged independently.

Read the full article at The Guardian.

If you don’t support independent restaurants, get used to soulless pizzas

Pizza express pizza, chains, independent restaurants

Michael Boyd

1st July 2010, The Times

The effect of restaurant chains like Pizza Express is that independents barely make a profit

After a particularly joyless visit to an Edinburgh Pizza Express last Sunday, all four of us ended up with mild food poisoning.

Of course, I can’t prove that the restaurant was responsible, but the leathery undercooked pizza, the warm drinking water served without ice, the bored waitress chewing on a snack as she served, the debate with the duty manager (“Please can we have some new garlic butter? This one hasn’t got any garlic in it.” “Yes it has.” “It hasn’t — try it.” “I don’t need to, because I know”): all this made us grumpy.

You can read the rest here at Times Online

After a particularly joyless visit to an Edinburgh Pizza Express last Sunday, all four of us ended up with mild food poisoning.

Of course, I can’t prove that the restaurant was responsible, but the leathery undercooked pizza, the warm drinking water served without ice, the bored waitress chewing on a snack as she served, the debate with the duty manager (“Please can we have some new garlic butter? This one hasn’t got any garlic in it.” “Yes it has.” “It hasn’t — try it.” “I don’t need to, because I know”): all this made us grumpy.

As usual — and I reckon one in three of our far-too-frequent visits to Pizza Express ends in recriminations — I asked my wife and kids whether we really had to go there again. “No, not to that one, not ever,” they agreed. “But we’ll go to the one in Leith, where the staff are nice.”

The faceless venture capital company that now owns Pizza Express must have done a rigorous cost-benefit analysis and decided that overpriced pizza + unhappy staff + moderate levels of customer dissatisfaction still equals very good business. You can see similar effects in other taken-over chains — such as the once wonderful and refreshing Loch Fyne Restaurants, which have now sadly declined since selling up to the pub’n’grub giant Greene King three years ago. I never talk to anyone who’s been there recently without hearing moans.

The problem of course is that we, and a million families like us, end up in these restaurants every week because of the simple, dull practicality of it. You know what you’re going to get, fussy children won’t cause problems, and it’s not that bad.

But life is short and I’d really like to try and break this cycle. It’s all very well complaining — goodness knows the British still need to learn how to do that when eating out. I have complained in the past at Pizza Express, usually over ridiculous waiting times: once the manager gave me the mobile phone number of his boss to call. You may get a £20 voucher, but you end up back at their tables with a depressing sense of déjà vu. The thing is to say to the children: “Enough. We’ll go and spend our money somewhere that deserves it.”

My stomach recovered, on Tuesday I went to a very different restaurant — Creelers (right), just off theRoyal Mile, Edinburgh. In this pleasant, modest fish bistro I ate a two-course set lunch that cost £10.50: exactly what we’d spent per head at Pizza Express. There was a gorgeous, tomato-based fish soup, gravadlax, mushroom risotto or seafood crêpe in a delicate mustardy sauce. Creelers is themed on the Isle of Arran — and it is from there and the Mull of Kintyre that much of its fish comes, some of it from the proprietors’ own creel boat. They run a smokehouse, too The waitress made me feel welcome, and she was Scottish. I’m all for foreigners in the British restaurant business — it wouldn’t survive without them — but to have someone from these islands serve you with charm and smiles, at this level, is a rare treat.

But Creelers, like thousands of independent restaurants, is starving.

Fran James, who started the restaurant with her husband Tim 15 years ago, says: “It’s very, very tough. I’m not sure how the independents are going to survive.”

Last year, for the first time, the business made a loss, and this year could be even worse, even though they’ve just won a big award. The recession is a factor, of course, but so are sharply rising costs in rates, electricity supply and staffing. Endless new legislation is a killer:

“Now someone has to have formal training just to pour a drink.” A change in licensing law in Edinburgh cost them £5,000 last winter. “Fixed costs,” says Fran, who works 12 or more hours a day, six days a week, “are up 70 per cent in four years.”

That splendid fixed-price lunch is £3 cheaper than it was five years ago and hardly delivers a profit. This is largely the effect of the chains. Nearby branches of Pizza Express and Bella Pasta offer two-for-the-price-of-one lunches. This sort of aggressive marketing — and the advertising that pushes it — is not something that the likes of Creelers can ever match. It reminded me of course of the supermarkets and their programmes of expansion into every possible high street outlet, taking advantage of the recession. If Creelers goes, so do jobs, and the four chefs whom Fran and Tim employ have learnt real skills — rather than Identikit-dish production. The lesson, for us, is the same as it is when we go shopping for groceries: if you want choice and diversity on the high street, go and support the independents. Or it’ll be identical not-too-bad pizzas for us all, up and down the land.

Alex Renton is this year’s winner of the Guild of Food Writers Food Journalist of the Year. He won for articles in The Times and The Observer. 

Eat my words: a great waft of summer


fresh from a tomato stall on the Isle of Wight

30th June 2011

The Times

We should all take advantage of the glut of tomatoes and, like farmers in Abruzzo, make passata

The English tomato season is at its height — and how wonderfully different they can be from the watery, ethylene-ripened balloons from Holland we were eating all spring. All this week we’ve snacked from a pile of gorgeous heritage varieties, “lost” tomatoes with storybook names — Tiger, Green Zebra, Marmonde, Coeur de Boeuf. They are scarlet, green, orange and a deep maroon ribbed with lime like some mad interior decorator’s fantasy.

These all came from the Tomato Stall, of the Isle of Wight, that will despatch a 5kg sample box overnight, and at a special price for Times readers — see below. The smells are rich when the tomatoes sit in the sun, a great waft of summer. The smaller tomatoes have sat in a bowl like cherries, glowing enticingly — the level goes down with each visitor.

Read the rest via Times Online

Giorgio Locatelli’s catch of the day

20th June 2010, The Observer

From working on a Cornish trawler to cooking a memorable meal on the quayside at Looe, Giorgio Locatelli follows his fish from the net to the plate.

We are rescuing fish. Giorgio Locatelli, his head chef Federico Sali and I are at the back of the trawler, elbow-deep in slime and scales, picking among the discards from the just-hauled net. We work fast: fish are dying here! A cascade of the unsellable and undersized – dogfish, baby sole and plaice, shad and whiting – is flying off the back of the boat into the water. Things the Italians can see good uses for – a lone scallop, a few ink-stained cuttlefish, a big red crab – go in a fish box. “We could have a fantastic meal with this lot right now,” says Giorgio. “If only we’d brought a pan.”

Read on at the Guardian website

Can you feed your family on £50 a week?

Alex Renton feeding his daughter and family for £50

May 19th 2011, The Times

Sainsbury’s believes you can, but when Alex Renton took up the challenge, he found his household of foodies and fussy eaters had serious misgivings.

Eighty-four meals, £50, one happy family, say the new Sainsbury’s adverts. They promise to feed a family of four for seven days for less than the price of a tank of petrol: “No really, it’s possible — we know because we’ve done the maths.” If they’d done that, I thought, we really should do the experiment. My happy family of four is very bad at doing the maths — we don’t have much of a clue what we spend on food even though we suffer the usual shrinking-income fears of the times. Feed each of us for £1.79 a day? I went straight down to Sainsbury’s.

Find the full article here on Times Online (in front of the paywall).

Foodie’s angst: Are my kids food neurotics?

Alex Renton and family during lunch, Foulden, Berwick on Tweed. Tom Main for The Times

17th April, The Times

My kids want KFC. Where did I go wrong?

On the way to lunch at Giorgio Locatelli’s restaurant in London, we crossed Oxford Street. My son Adam, 11, trudging along grumpily at the prospect of a boring two hours in a posh restaurant, raised his nose. He sniffed the air, like a gourmet catching a whiff of bouillabaisse in a Marseilles back street. He sighed rapturously and said: “KFC! I just want to know what it tastes like. Imagine, I’m a child who has never even tried Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

Read on here at Times Online